FOR years Simon Amstell has struggled with his Essex roots – not because of the county’s stereotypes, but because growing up was a difficult time for the comedian.
Brought up in Redbridge, the former host of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, was a shy child who didn’t know where he fit in – a far cry from the controversial comedian we see today on our TV screens.
Now though, the 35-year-old has embraced his heritage and will be heading back to Essex for his fourth international stand up tour To Be Free.
“I’ve lived in London since I was 21 or 22, but I am from Essex, it is true,” he tells me over the phone last week. “I wrote a sitcom about being from somewhere and leaving that place and the values and perspectives you gain.”
He is of course referring to Grandma’s House, a BBC2 programme where Simon played a version of himself – a TV presenter quitting his job to try and do something more meaningful with his life. The sitcom ran for two series until 2012 and Simon claims writing and acting in the show helped him to deal with some of his own inner demons.
“I used to have a lot of issues around where I came from, but I learned through writing and acting to accept where you’re from,” he says. “I’m okay now and I’m very grateful that I’ve had that journey. Some people go through life staying in the same place and not making a journey to discover who they are.
“Essex is the ideal place to grow up though because London isn’t too far away,” he adds, quickly. “I didn’t know that when I was growing up so I ended up getting drunk and throwing up at the same club in Romford for three years. But I went to a great school called Beal High School in Redbridge and if it wasn’t for that school I wouldn’t be doing what I am now.”
Indeed, Simon has come a long way from his days clubbing in Romford. Landing himself a presenting role on children’s TV channel Nickelodeon in 1998, Simon went on to become a presenter on T4’s Popworld for six years, before securing the host role on panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks.
“Growing up I always wanted to be in television,” he says. “I wanted to be Chris Evans on The Big Breakfast. I also became obsessed with Eddie Izzard. So I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I’m happy to do it all – but I don’t want to interview pop stars ever again. I’ve honestly run out of questions to ask them!
“I’m lucky that in everything I’ve done I’m able to express myself fully and I’m able to be funny in different ways,” he adds. “When I come to the end of expressing myself in a particular format I tend to leave.”
And that’s exactly what he did. After three years on Buzzcocks, Simon shocked fans when he decided to quit the show at the height of his fame in 2009 to focus on his stand up – a move that has seen him tour the nation three times and launch his comedy career in America which has already landed him sold out residencies in New York and a recent feature on The Tonight Show.
“I think it’s more that I’m new to them that’s exciting,” he says of the appeal of the American crowd. “I grew up watching American sitcoms like Rosanne and watching Woody Allen, so it’s very familiar to me out there. Plus they speak English, which is a bonus. I’ve become quite disillusioned over time, so I thought it would be fun to do it somewhere new.
“I feel like through stand up, I’ve figured out who I am and that’s what To Be Free is all about,” he says of his new tour. “It’s letting go of ego, anxiety and being free of not just your own insecurities but everything. I talk about sex and relationships and awkward moments. I’ve tried to express myself truthfully at the most inappropriate times. I basically embrace the fact that I’m an idiot for an hour or so and then I shed that skin, step out and leave it there.
“But if I share something deeply personal and the audience don’t laugh, I’m a little hurt,” he adds. “There’s a lot of shame in that silence. But I’ll keep working up the show until it’s complete. I think that stand up is the only place that you can be completely open and if you can’t be honest then you shouldn’t be a stand up, you should be a lawyer!”
Simon Amstell: To Be Free comes to the Palace Theatre in Southend on Wednesday, 4 February. For tickets call 01702 351135.